Wildlife of the Week #4    Little Brown Myotis  -  M. Edgar, Wagner Natural Area Society, July 4, 2018

Common name: Little Brown Bat, Little Brown Myotis

Scientific name: Myotis lucifugus

Family: Vespertilionidae


The Little Brown Myotis, or the Little Brown Bat (Myotis lucifugus), is one of the most common bats in Alberta, according to recent sources (Hinterland Who’s Who, 2013). This bat species is assumed to be the dominant species found at Wagner Natural Area, though this theory will soon be affirmed. On July 10, 2018, at 9:30 pm the Alberta Community Bat Program will be visiting the Wagner Natural Area and leading a walk through the area with bat detectors! The bat detectors are used to pick up the frequency of calls, which can help differentiate species since they all make calls at slightly different frequencies. From Figure 2, you can see the distribution of the little brown myotis, which can be found in all provinces and territories except Nunavut (Hinterland Who’s Who, 2013). This species can also be found in most of the United States, having been documented in the continental states and Alaska, as well as the cooler mountainous areas of central Mexico. 


Figure 1: Little Brown Myotis.     Photo credit: Annemieke Watkins, http://www.hww.ca/en/wildlife/mammals/little-brown-bat.html

 

These little critters can weigh between 7 and 9 grams and have a wingspan of 25 to 27 cm (Hinterland Who’s Who, 2013). The little brown bat has very round ears, as the Myotis part of their Latin binomial aptly translates to. While finding information about this species, I was very surprised to find out they can live up to 34 years old, and potentially longer. This was surprising, as other small animals, such as mice, can live for only 5 years or less. 

Despite what many people think, bats are not blind! They are a nocturnal species, which requires them to use different methods to navigate in the dark. Bats are one of the very few species that use echolocation to guide where they fly in the night and pinpoint where their prey is. Echolocation is the process by which clicking noises at different frequencies, are used to bounce off objects so that sounds reflect back to the bat and give it information about its surroundings




Figure 2: The distribution of the Little Brown Myotis, across North America.      Photo credit: Hinterland Who’s Who, http://www.hww.ca/en/wildlife/mammals/little-brown-bat.html


The little brown myotis has a diet consisting of a mix of various flying insects. Insects like the mosquito are one of the foods on the little brown bats menu, thank goodness! Other insects include moths, flies, mayflies, beetles, and midges (Hinterland Who’s Who, 2013). Though, since bats can also be opportunistic feeders, they will eat whatever is available to them. A majority of the little brown myotis will end up consuming nearly 1000 insects per night, between their feeding at sunset and sunrise, equaling half their body weight.

Bats, including the little brown myotis, are gregarious species. Gregarious simply means they are a species that lives in groups, and in this case, the little brown myotis will live in a hibernaculum in groups (Figure 3).


Figure 3: Little Brown Bats inside a hibernaculum.    Photo credit: Brian Masney, http://www.hww.ca/en/wildlife/mammals/little-brown-bat.html

Worrisomely, in 2006, a threat to the survival of this and other bat species arrived in North America from Europe (Hinterland Who’s Who, 2013). This threat is called White Nose Syndrome (WNS), caused by a fungus called Geomyces destructans. Since the bats in Europe have evolved alongside this fungus they were immune to it, which is the complete opposite reaction of the North American bats. Little brown myotis individuals are the most affected bat species, though the Tri-Colored Bat (Perimyotis subflavus) and the Northern Myotis (Myotis septentriolis) are also susceptible to WNS. Essentially, while the bats are hibernating, the Geomyces destructans fungus will grow on the bats’ nose, wings, and anywhere there is not any fur, and have a white appearance. Since this is all occurring while the bats are hibernating within their hibernacula (Figure 3), the fungus can quickly spread to each bat. The fungus causes the bats to wake up more often to groom themselves and consequently they become dehydrated. Eventually, they use up the fat reserves that they had built up before the winter and causes the little brown myotis' to starve.

Though bats face extinction as a result of WNS, the destruction of hibernacula and colonies, habitat loss, the use of pesticides, and toxins within the food systems, there are ways we can help (Hinterland Who’s Who, 2013). As a community, we can try to use less or no pesticides or other chemicals in our yards, as they can enter the food chain and contaminate the insects that bats eat. It is a matter of being mindful of our flying friends! There are resources, such as the Alberta Community Bat Program, that are available to us to find out more information on what to do if we find a bat or events that we can attend to learn more, such as the July 10th event at Wagner Natural Area.

For more information about bats, managing bats in buildings, assistance with dealing with dead, injured or trapped bats, you may call or email the Alberta Community Bat Program, a program of Wildlife Conservation Society Canada, which started in collaboration with Alberta Environment and Parks and the Alberta Bat Action Team (the bat experts!): 

Email: info@albertabats.ca                       Call toll-free: 1-866-574-1706

References:

Hinterland Who’s Who. (2013). Little Brown Bat. Retrieved from http://www.hww.ca/en/wildlife/mammals/little-brown-bat.html



Wildlife of the Week #3    Boreal Toad  -  M. Edgar, Wagner Natural Area Society, June 9, 2018

Common name: Boreal Toad or Western Toad

Scientific name: Anaxyrus boreas

Family: Bufonidae


The Boreal or Western Toad, Anaxyrus boreas, is a nocturnal, amphibian species that many people are not aware live in Alberta, as they are a very inconspicuous species. From May 15th to 25th, I was able to contribute to Wagner Natural Area research by conducting amphibian surveys. Throughout these surveys, I would observe approximately 25 of these toads per night along the Marl Pond Trail. Of course, by frequently seeing these robust amphibians, my interest was piqued and I wanted to learn more about the boreal toad.




Figure 1: Dorsal view of a Boreal Toad.  Photo credit: M. Edgar


The boreal toad’s range includes the northern and western areas of Alberta, where they are able to inhabit boreal forest, foothill, subalpine, and alpine environments, as shown in Figure 2 (Alberta Conservation Association, 2018). This toad species has been found as far east as Lac La Biche, though they are mostly absent in the very dry southern and eastern regions of Alberta. They are also found west of the Rocky Mountains, from Mexico to southern Alaska (British Columbia Ministry of Environment). 

Aside from the Boreal Toad, two other species of true toad (Family Bufonidae) can be found in Alberta; The Great Plains Toad and the Canadian Toad. True toads have dry, warty skin with robust bodies. They have very short, thick legs, and because of this, they hop rather than leap like frogs. On the underside of their hind feet they have a structure called a tubercle. Tubercles are knob-like projections that are often used for digging and burrowing themselves into the soil. They also have a paratoid gland behind each eye. Paratoid glands are oval-shaped and secrete alkaloid substances, known as bufotoxins, which deter predators. 




Figure 2: Distribution of Boreal Toad in Alberta. Photo credit: Alberta Environment and Parks. http://aep.alberta.ca/fish-wildlife/wild-species/amphibians/toads/western-toad.aspx

There are a few physical characteristics possessed by the boreal toad separating it from other species found in Alberta. Both juvenile and adult boreal toads will have large, reddish-brown warts that have dark outlines (Figure 1). There will also be raised, oval-shaped paratoid glands located behind each of the boreal toad’s eyes. Most times, they will have a light strip down the middle of their backs. The background colour, or main colour of the boreal toad, can be olive-green, red, brown, and sometimes nearly black (Figure 3). The boreal toad has been documented to grow up to 13 cm in body length (Alberta Conservation Association, 2018).  The boreal toad has dark mottling on its ventral side, also known as its stomach. It is very important to note that the boreal toad does not have cranial crests, or ridges, on the top of their heads. The lack of the ridge is what I found most helpful in identifying the boreal toad. Boreal Toads are distributed along some of the regions that can have Canadian Toad species, which are very similar in their colouring, but have large cranial crests.


Figure 3: This is a photo of a Boreal Toad with a green background colour.  Photo credit: M. Edgar.

Boreal toads have more complicated life cycles, different from normal juvenile to adult life cycles that other animals may have, they also have an egg and tadpole life stage. The boreal toad lays its eggs in strings of one to three rows of eggs, and one string can have up to 16,500 eggs (NatureWatch, 2018). Sadly, 99% of the larvae that emerge from the clutch of eggs will not survive (British Columbia Ministry of Environment). Three to twelve days after being laid, the eggs will hatch and the larvae, or tadpoles, will emerge. Attempting to identify the boreal toad in its tadpole stage can prove difficult, though there are some ways to identify them. The eyes on the boreal toad tadpoles are located on the central part of the body, when viewed from above (Alberta Conservation Association, 2018). Throughout their geographical range, the tadpoles of the boreal toad can vary in size, but are entirely black with a dark tail. They commonly form closely packed schools in shallow water, which present as dark, dense mats.  Once they lose their tails and other larvae characteristics, the tadpoles will become juvenile toads and will take two to three years to mature.

Toads, specifically boreal toads, create calls that may be easily confused with other animal species, especially birds. The boreal toad makes low, chirping noises, which are very similar to the call of Northern Saw-whet Owls. 

Boreal toads prefer to feast upon worms, slugs and insects. More than 95 percent of their diet consists of flying insects, ants, beetles, sowbugs, crayfish, spiders, centipedes, slugs and earthworms (British Columbia Ministry of Environment).  From my own experience, I have seen a boreal toad predate upon a beetle. As I approached, the toad took up a defensive posture, raised up on its legs and puffed up with air. From research, I learned that puffing up with air makes it more difficult for predators to swallow the boreal toad (NatureWatch, 2018).

Though they are not listed by the IUCN Red List as a concern, amphibian population trends are decreasing, in part by increases in UV radiation, among others. Increases in UV radiation have been proven to increase embryo mortality and developmental abnormalities, as well as hamper antipredator behaviour (Blaustein, A.R. et al., 2003). It is truly an exciting moment when witnessing a boreal toad, an outlandish species that has such different physiological processes than humans or other wildlife.

References:

Alberta Conservation Association (2018). Alberta Volunteer Amphibian Monitoring Program: Boreal Toad. Retrieved from http://www.ab-conservation.com/avamp/identification-keys/juvenile-and-adult-amphibians-of-alberta/boreal-toad/ [June 11, 2018]

Blaustein, A.R., Romansic, J.M., Kiesecker, J.M., Audrey, C.H. (2003). Ultraviolet radiation, toxic chemicals and amphibian population declines. Diversity and Distributions, 9: 123-140. Doi: 10.1046/j.1472-4642.2003.00015.x

British Columbia Ministry of Environment. Species Factsheets: Western Toad. Retrieved from http://www.env.gov.bc.ca/wld/frogwatch/publications/factsheets/frogs/western-toad.htm [June 11, 2018]

NatureWatch (2018). FrogWatch: Boreal/Western Toad. Retrieved from https://www.naturewatch.ca/frogwatch/borealwestern-toad/ [June 11, 2018]



Wildlife of the Week #2   Pileated Woodpecker  -  M. Edgar, Wagner Natural Area Society, May28, 2018

Common name: Pileated woodpecker

Scientific name: Dryocopus pileatus

Family: Picidae

Have you ever been on a stroll through a forest and heard the sound of drumming and wondered what you were hearing? What you may have heard was the Pileated Woodpecker, a species of bird that lives within mature deciduous or mixed-deciduous forest stands, where there are plenty of dead trees, snags, and rotting logs (The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, 2017). They can be found across North America, from the coast of Vancouver, to the East coasts of Canada and the United States. They are a non-migratory bird, which means they will usually live in the same region their entire lives.

The Pileated Woodpecker is a large bird about the same size as an American Crow. The female woodpeckers have white stripes on the face that continue down the neck, with a red crest (The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, 2017). The males look very similar, with the addition of a red cheek stripe (Figure 1). Both females and males have bills that appear very heavy and are perfectly shaped for excavating bark in search of insects for dinner. The wingspan of a Pileated Woodpecker can reach 44 cm. These birds can weigh up to 3.36 kg (McGillivray et al.,1998). Pileated woodpeckers are very vocal. Their typical call consists of high, clear piping sounds that last just a few seconds. They are also capable of making shorter, territorial or alarm calls that sound similar to wuk, wuk or cuk, cuk.
Figure 1: Pileated woodpecker. Photo credit: David Turgeon (https://macaulaylibrary.org/asset/47886711__hstc=75100365.098c59ab32fab7dd48c05ce6b9f2be4d.1526403789676.1526663329868.1527104944471.4&__hssc=75100365.2.1527104944471&__hsfp=3111006674#_ga=2.16511925.2051107606.1527104944-1580993999.1526403787) 

Pileated Woodpeckers are bark and wood foragers, which means they will peck through the bark and excavate holes in the underlying wood in search of their preferred meal. Interestingly, the rectangular holes that the Pileated Woodpeckers are able to excavate in trees are so large and deep that they have been known to break small trees in half (The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, 2017). Some of their favourite foods on the menu are carpenter ants, woodboring beetle larvae, termites, and other insects including flies, spruce budworm, caterpillars, cockroaches, and grasshoppers. These birds also consume wild fruits and nuts, including the fruits of dogwood shrubs, which are very far from being sparse at Wagner Natural Area. Pileated woodpeckers have long tongues that are barbed near the end and used like a rake in order to easily extract prey from cavities.
 

What I found curious was how the Pileated Woodpecker could repeatedly thrust its cranium and use its beak to peck at tree bark without causing damage to its brain or bones. Through some research, I discovered their tongues have been designed to wrap around their brains, very similar to the seatbelt that we use to restrain ourselves in vehicles (Figure 2). Woodpecker tongues contain six long, slender bones which make up the hyoid apparatus. Through relatively new research, scientists have discovered the hyoid apparatus is comprised of a new type of bone structure, opposite of typical skeletal bone structure (Jung, J.-Y. et al., 2016). This remarkable bone structure, found in the tongues of woodpecker species, provides energy absorption routes for the hyoid apparatus, helping protect the brain and other internal organs of woodpeckers. The discovery of the hyoid structure and its composition has the potential to be useful and applicable to the design of engineered structures.

 

Figure 2: This is a Northern Flickers tongue anatomy, which is the same concept as the Pileated Woodpecker. The tongue is Y-shaped. 

Photo credit: Bird WatchingDaily.https://www.birdwatchingdaily.com/blog/2013/12/10/woodpeckers-hammer-without-headaches/

Pileated Woodpeckers have been identified as species of concern in Alberta, because they are associated with old growth forest, which is quickly deteriorating in regions being overrun by urban sprawl and development (McGillivray et al.,1998). Since then, their populations have, luckily, grown and stabilized. Pileated Woodpeckers are important, as their abandoned nest cavities provide paramount areas for other species that inhabit the boreal forest to survive, such as the American Kestrel, Tree Swallows and the smaller owls, such as the Northern Saw-whet Owl. The Pileated Woodpecker is a conspicuous species that can be frequently spotted at Wagner Natural Area.

References:

Jung, J.-Y. et al. (2016). Structural analysis of the tongue and hyoid apparatus in a woodpecker. Acta Biomaterialia, 37(2016), 1–13.

McGillivray, W.B., Semenchuk, G.P. (1998) The Federation of Alberta Naturalists: Field Guide to Alberta Birds. Edmonton, Alberta: The Federation of Alberta Naturalists.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology. (2017) Pileated Woodpecker: Life History. Retrieved from https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Pileated_Woodpecker/lifehistory#conservation [May 24, 2018].

 


Wildlife of the Week #1   Porcupine  -  M. Edgar, Wagner Natural Area Society, May 9, 2018

Common name: North American porcupine, Common porcupine, Canadian porcupine

Scientific name: Erethizon dorsatum

Family: Erethizontidae

Porcupines are otherworldly animals, with spikes that grow from their backs, strong climbing skills, and who have a bad reputation to many dog owners. North American porcupines can be found in Wagner Natural Area and throughout Canada. Through my research I have learned that the porcupine is the second largest rodent in Alberta (Alberta Agriculture and Forestry 2005). Porcupines can measure up to 90 cm in length, weigh as much as 12 kg and can live up to 18 years in the wild. These long-living rodents are widely dispersed through the province, but typically near forest stands. Porcupines are a nocturnal species, primarily active throughout the night, and have poor eyesight, but their senses of hearing and smell are excellent. What I found surprising, and I am sure others would too, is that this species does not hibernate over the winter. Other identifying features of this animal are their thick tail and short powerful legs with long, curved claws. These claws make it easier for them to grasp and climb trees (Alberta Environment and Parks 2010). They tend to feed on green leaves of forbs, shrubs and trees in the summer. In the winter they feed on the inner bark (cambium), twigs and buds of trees    
    

Figure 1:Trunk damage caused by porcupine at Wagner Natural Area. 
Photo credit: Britney Blomquist

One of their unique features is their defence mechanism, which is what people typically tend to think of when they imagine the porcupine. Myself, and I’m sure others, have seen this defence mechanism in action when curious dogs approach a porcupine, only to have 30 quills stuck in their curious snouts. On a porcupine’s body, it can have up to 30,000 fortified and barbed quills that are included in the composition of their coats (Alberta Agriculture and Forestry 2005). According to Alberta Environment and Parks (2010), and contrary to some beliefs, porcupines cannot throw their quills, rather they can embed their quills into a perceived threat with a speedy slap of their tails. Alas, knocking aside our preconceived ideas that we learned as children while watching cartoons where the quills of the porcupine fly out of their backs. Before the porcupine slaps their tail into a threat, they will communicate that they are feeling threatened by vocalizing, as well as displaying their quills and chattering their teeth together. In these situations it is important to back away slowly and respect the animal’s presence. Interestingly, these quills are hollow which reduces their body weight and adds to the buoyancy of the animal, which is useful when the porcupine occasionally swims.          

Different from other rodent species, there is usually only one porcupine that is born to each female between mid-May through to July (Alberta Environment and Parks 2010). The young are precocial, meaning they are born in an advanced state of development and are able to feed themselves almost immediately. This characteristic is unique to the porcupine, as it is the only North American rodent to give birth to precocial young. According to the Edmonton and Area Land Trust website (2016), the baby porcupines, adorably known as porcupettes, should be left alone if a person were to find them on the ground. Though one may want to do the opposite of what this website advises, as is the good nature of humans to help baby animals, this is where the mother porcupine will leave her young while she naps in the trees, and will return at night to feed her young (so don’t fret!).

    
Figure 2: North American porcupine in tree.
Photo credit: Paul Bolstad. (www.bugwood.org)

It takes only one jaunt around the Marl Pond Trail at the Wagner Natural Area to witness the moderate foraging that the North American porcupine presence has on the large white spruce trees (Picea glauca) near Post #8 and the Windfallen White Spruce area of the trail. If you look closely through the trees, you can see that one of them has been heavily foraged around the entire trunk, this is called girdling. Though the porcupine does have the capacity to girdle trees and ultimately cause mortality by feeding on the inner tree bark, buds, twigs and evergreen needles, it is important to keep in mind their significance (Edmonton and Area Land Trust 2016). Porcupines help keep forests healthy by eating mistletoe, a parasitic plant that grows on many different tree species, as well as thinning out dense stands of saplings.

References:
Alberta Agriculture and Forestry. (2005). Control of Porcupine Damage. Retrieved from https://www1.agric.gov.ab.ca/$department/deptdocs.nsf/all/agdex3470 [May 9, 2018].
Alberta Environment and Parks. (2010). Common Porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum). Retrieved from http://aep.alberta.ca/fish-wildlife/wild-species/mammals/rabbits-rodents/porcupine.aspx [May 9, 2018].
Edmonton and Area Land Trust. (2016). Porcupine. Retrieved from https://www.ealt.ca/species-spotlight-list/porcupine [May 9, 2018].